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Advances in Artificial Limbs Help Returning Soldier-Amputees

A record number of U.S. soldiers injured in Iraq have lost arms and legs in explosions caused by remote-controlled bombs. The need for more comfortable, adaptable artificial limbs has inspired new technology to help smooth their return to civilian life. VOA's Melinda Smith has a progress report from the military's premier hospital, in Washington, D.C., which cares for these amputees.

In the physical therapy room for amputees at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, young soldiers come for the assistance they'll need to help them make the transition to civilian lives. They already have two major advantages: they are young and in top physical condition says Daniel Carroll who works with the amputees. "At Walter Reed, they're fit with prostheses a lot sooner than the normal population. And that's to prevent de-conditioning and just to keep them coordinated and have them back into action as soon as possible."

'Back into action' does not mean back on the front lines for a large majority of these soldiers. It means learning to walk before learning to run.

Lance Corporal Kade Hinkhouse has dreams of running again. He is training with a 'mechanical' leg, rather than the customary "C" leg worn by most soldier amputees. The "C" leg directs physical movement by means of a computer inside the knee unit.

Hinkhouse likes the mechanical leg because it gives him more muscle control. "There's probably some more fine tuning I can do, to make sure I walk a little bit better, and not fall so much."

He was only 19 when an improvised bomb in the Iraqi town of Ramadi blew up next to the military vehicle in which he was riding. He lost a leg, part of his skull, and one of his buddies. "My friend was sitting six inches next to me, off to my right, and he died."

Hinkhouse might also have died if it had not been for the medics who moved in behind the blast. Quick-response surgical teams can set up a hospital unit in one hour.

They may also have saved the life of Marine Corporal Travis Greene. At Walter Reed, he is learning to balance on his computer-directed limbs, with the help of a walker. He describes how he lost both legs when a secondary explosion happened during the rescue of another soldier. "An IED [Improvised Explosive Device] blew up on the other side of the 'seven-ton' [large military vehicle] and all the shrapnel came from underneath and took everybody's legs from there."

Bullet-proof vests worn by the U.S. military protect the largest part of the body. The head, arms and legs are more vulnerable. The rate of head and neck injuries, as well as limb amputations, has been higher in Iraq compared to previous wars.

In the past, wartime has always been the source of innovation in the development of prosthetics. The conflict in Iraq has prompted the use of lighter, more durable materials like graphite and titanium for the prostheses. Daniel Carroll adds, "The biggest advent we saw was the addition of carbon fiber, which is an energy storing material for things, to add strength to the socket and also flexibility and energy storage to the feet."

Returning soldiers like Kade Hinkhouse say they realize their physical abilities will never be as they were before going off to war. But they hope to have fewer limitations by learning to use these lighter, more flexible prostheses. "If I have kids, how am I going to chase after them in a wheelchair, if I don't have my leg on. There are a lot of obstacles that I'll have to overcome."